Instructed motivational states bias reinforcement learning and memory formation

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2023 Aug;120(31):e2304881120. doi: 10.1073/pnas.2304881120. Epub 2023 Jul 25.


Motivation influences goals, decisions, and memory formation. Imperative motivation links urgent goals to actions, narrowing the focus of attention and memory. Conversely, interrogative motivation integrates goals over time and space, supporting rich memory encoding for flexible future use. We manipulated motivational states via cover stories for a reinforcement learning task: The imperative group imagined executing a museum heist, whereas the interrogative group imagined planning a future heist. Participants repeatedly chose among four doors, representing different museum rooms, to sample trial-unique paintings with variable rewards (later converted to bonus payments). The next day, participants performed a surprise memory test. Crucially, only the cover stories differed between the imperative and interrogative groups; the reinforcement learning task was identical, and all participants had the same expectations about how and when bonus payments would be awarded. In an initial sample and a preregistered replication, we demonstrated that imperative motivation increased exploitation during reinforcement learning. Conversely, interrogative motivation increased directed (but not random) exploration, despite the cost to participants' earnings. At test, the interrogative group was more accurate at recognizing paintings and recalling associated values. In the interrogative group, higher value paintings were more likely to be remembered; imperative motivation disrupted this effect of reward modulating memory. Overall, we demonstrate that a prelearning motivational manipulation can bias learning and memory, bearing implications for education, behavior change, clinical interventions, and communication.

Keywords: decision making; memory; motivation; reinforcement learning; reward.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Humans
  • Learning
  • Mental Recall
  • Motivation*
  • Reinforcement, Psychology*
  • Reward